Arching her back made stiff by the chair, Sharon Knowles hiked an irate eyebrow. All these cold cases, she swore, pretty much remained frozen in their icy limbo. Her sigh was a mournful one. Homicides had spiked to 483 in 1990 when the crack cocaine epidemic raged at its greatest furor. Washington, D.C. took a blood bath that year and the no statue of limitations on murder left a raft of killers still out there.
Four fat accordion files retained the history of each homicide investigation. One fifteen-year-old boy ice-picked in the sternum died fighting over CDs. Two thirtysomething men died in altercations over cocaine. One absorbed multiple .44 rounds while some stoner wielding a ninepin at a now boarded up bowling alley in Anacostia bludgeoned the second to death.
Sighing, Sharon nudged those three files aside on the green metal table after having sifted through lurid crime scene photos, witness statements, and arrest reports. The remaining homicide file won her most earnest attention. Just then, a girlish snicker enlivened the file room where Sharon and the three other students were sequestered. Sharon winced. All sophomores from nearby American University, they should take this work more seriously. Pete, the self-styled “token male,” spoke out:
“Yo, Sharon, let’s go grab a burger.”
“You all go ahead,” she replied. “I still have a case to catch.”
Nan piped out a giggle. “Girl, listen at you talking like a cop. Who in their right mind expects us to make headway on these old moldy murders?”
“You said it. These work conditions suck butt,” Elisha said. “Ancient 486 computers. The A-C conking out every time we sneeze from toxic molds in noisy ventilation ducts. Look at this hole-in-the-wall for an office.”
“The worst is no pay, only academic credit,” said Pete. “My old man complained about taking a big dent in the wallet to pony up tuition bucks. Oh, City Hall loves us summer interns to do their scut work.”
“It’s all too realistic,” said Sharon.
“My dad’s law practice is waiting for me when I graduate,” Elisha said. “This grind is history, I kid you not. This place is grotty. It makes me wanna jump up and race back to take a long, hot shower.” She shivered thought the shoulders.
“But still a job is a job,” said Sharon. “If it galls you that much, Elisha, you shouldn’t have signed on. It’s not too late to withdraw. Just trot over and charm Dean Rollins into approving it.”
“Say it, preacher lady. Tell it straight up,” Elisha responded.
Sharon saw red but, laughing, Pete intervened. “Law enforcement isn’t in the cards for me either,” he said.
Dreadlocks flopping, Elisha jerked her head up and down. “For certain, it’s not my bag. No sirree. My road is paved in gold to law school. My dad, an alumni, contributed thousands to ‘grease the skids,’ as he puts it for his little girl. Isn’t that a funny phrase? Grease the skids.”
“Didn’t I already tell you? Georgetown.”
“I think so, thank you very much.”
“You gotta graduate first.”
“Hey, no problem there . . . ”
The trio talking in animated tones exited into the corridor’s sallow yellow light glaring off the linoleum tiles worn smooth by legions of beat cops. Sharon stymied an impulse to leap up and go join them. Why was she left to feel like a suspect undergoing interrogation in this windowless room? That she didn’t was a pity except this fourth case beckoned. Cops were trained to stay detached from their work but this slain girl had gotten under Sharon’s skin, indeed.
Vi Stallard, 22, had called a taxi to go jog in Rock Creek Park one raw, rainy afternoon that kept away all but the most inveterate runners. A few days later, Sharon read in the police report, a man out with his dog scouting for turtles had bumbled upon her half-hidden corpse. Studying the autopsy photos arrayed before her, Sharon let a vivid tremor circuit through her. Several faraway shots showed the half-nude Vi sprawled there in grainy half-light minus hands or feet.
“Yep. They were never recovered,” a gruff male voice said from behind Sharon as if reading her mind. The thickset man in a rumpled blue suit waltzed into her sightline as a shadow fell across her emotions. He smelled of peppermint, Brut, and possibly NyQuil. “It was by leaps and bounds my most grisly homicide. My career in law enforcement spans a stint as an MP in war-torn Saigon, too.” Detective Stoppard lowered his roly-poly heft into the chair opposite from Sharon with a weary groan sounding much practiced.
“I saved her out until last to plunk into the database,” said Sharon. “Her case file is tough to get through.”
Biting down on glum lips, Stoppard’s slight nod assented. “I’ve a confession to make,” he said. “I threw this cold case at you on purpose. Of all the interns, you stood out as the most likely to produce results.”
“Gee thanks,” said Sharon. “I think, detective.”
“Look, you’ve declared your major in criminal justice. I applaud you. That tells me
you’ve an unquenchable curiosity about the peace officer trade.” His smile, no teeth, stretched beyond perfunctory. At the same time, a smarmy air about the detective made Sharon wary. She attributed it to his hawklike scrutiny now lingering on her. Sensing her ill-at-ease, he added, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to jar you. All I’m hoping is a fresh set of eyeballs might glean a detail or clue my people overlooked. Anything, no matter how trivial. Who knows? It might be the key we’ve sought high and low all these years?”
“No physical evidence was saved,” Sharon said. “That’d be our best shot to reopen the case.” She shuffled the photos into a pile and flipped it over. Detective Stoppard fixed his luminous gray eyes on her deft hand motions, her fluttering coral-tipped fingers. Sharon was attuned to their interest and folded both hands in her lap under the table. Mature men like her philosophy professor were attracted to her and while flattered by their attention, she wasn’t sure about encouraging them.
“The typical stuff you’d expect to find,” he said, “didn’t shake out in this crime scene. It was, well, almost antiseptic. The killer knew his Ps & Qs.”
Hands clasped behind his head, Detective Stoppard warmed to the topic. “For instance, the autopsy report mentions nothing about sexual assault on the jogger. Okay, but here’s the puzzler: what about motive? I mean Vi Stallard was strangled by a cruel, cunning sadist yet that’s too general, too vague to assemble any profile. He’s your average Joe, I bet, who blends in among us.”
Sharon asked, “W-w-what about these amputations? Did that fit any sicko’s M.O.?”
“The short answer is no. Even with the open season for killers in 1990, not very many traipsed around the city lopping off their poor victims’ hands and feet. Vi Stallard was the only one. Very unique, very original. Like I said, the killer was a genuine work of art.”
“That detail was never released to the media,” Sharon surmised.
Detective Stoppard’s shrug bordered on noncommittal. “Can’t actually remember. If so, it got lost in the welter of violence. The Washington Post‘s crime column had a field day in 1990. Boy, I hated going on patrol some night watches. Hated it. Newspapers read like the script to a slasher flick. Hey, you look worn to a frazzle, Sharon. Why don’t you bag it for today? Go meet your pals at Starbucks or wherever you students hang out these days. You’ll go barking mad overloaded with this craziness.”
Sharon agreed but slipped the Vi Stallard homicide file into her straw tote bag before dodging out the door. Detective Stoppard scribbling something on a legal pad pretended he didn’t catch the small subterfuge. His opaque smile, in fact, trailed her out of the file room.
# # #
The artifacts from the Stallard homicide file lay categorized in piles across Sharon’s narrow dorm bed. Her suitemate Janice was off paragliding for the weekend at Cape May and having the quiet room to herself emboldened Sharon to try and make this puzzle fit. Her analytical gaze roved over the crime scene and autopsy photos. She counted 52 black-and-whites and a couple dozen color prints shot from diverse angles. All were hard on the eyes but she never
flinched or gagged.
She wasn’t a seasoned detective and knew it but the sum of visual horror here shook a helpless indignation and rage inside her. After sweeping the photos into a mound, she began reading. The cops’ writing though blunt and professional in style and content struck her as incomplete and rushed. For a third time, she pored through each page, muttering each word as to a voodoo mantra. Unlike on the slick TV drama CSI, no brilliant insight popped into her brain just before cutting to commercial break.
A string of firecracker pops below in the quad prompted Sharon to go over and close the window to breezes fragranted by hyacinths and lilacs. Eerie images of the butchered up jogger with no hands or feet blazed in her mind. She stiffened and exhaled as the horrific vision dissolved before something skating on the periphery of her mind came into plain view.
That man with the dog scrounging for turtles in Rock Creek Park, did he leave a name? The next logical thing was to test the veracity of his tale. Did any beat cop ask the man about the turtles? Sharon was on a roll. Did this mysterious man boil the turtles for soup? Wasn’t poaching wildlife in any city park illegal? It should be, she decided.
Sharon rechecked the paperwork, zeroing in on the yellow highlighted lines, without any success to satisfy her instinctual nosiness. Great. Turtle Man’s name went unrecorded. An idea suggested itself to Sharon before despair dulled her optimism. Detective Stoddard’s home telephone number came off a business card stapled inside the manila folder. She used a telephone at the end of the dorm’s hallway since the security of speaking on a cellular was dicey. During chirpy blips, she debated the prudence of her bold action.
“Mr. Stoddard’s residence,” answered an abrasive female’s voice.
Sharon: “Oh? Is, um, the detective in?”
“Surely. Now, are you one of his love slaves or the girl who cleans? Just kidding, hon. Hang tight for a moment.”
“Stoddard here,” came the familiar sonorous voice. Fatigue? Alcohol? Sharon knew that cops were big drinkers off duty. It was one of manyfold ways they unwound nerves left tensile taut by the job.
“It’s me, Sharon Knowles. Quick question. The gentleman who discovered Vi Stallard, no name surfaces in the file and it’s bugging me.”
“H-m-m-m, I could’ve sworn it was there,” said Stoddard. “Tomorrow we’ll paw through my original handwritten notes. Fortunately names I never forget. He was Stewart Weems. W-E-E-M-S, Weems. Satisfied?”
“Got it and thanks. Are you okay? You’re voice sounds off-key.”
“Well, it would. I was asleep. Finally.”
Sharon gushed her reflex apology. “Oh my god, I am so very sorry, detective. Had I known, I would’ve never — ”
“It’s not a problem. Do us both a favor. Forget about this case and get some sleep. Good night, Sharon.”
“Good night, detective,” she replied. Before severing her end of the connection, she wondered just where Stoddard lived since all metropolitan police members had to reside within city limits. Not wearing a wedding band, was he married? Love slave? Detective Stoppard was a solid cop but with a bizarre lifestyle.
# # #
Stewart Weems was listed in the good old reliable White Pages at 303 Q Street and Sharon couldn’t believe it as she marched off campus in that direction. At ten or so blocks away, she considered it walkable and vetoed summoning an expensive taxicab. Besides, the spring night air exhilarated her. Not until she’d gone three blocks did it dawn on her that walking a night street alone might rate as dangerous or, even worse, peg her for a prostitute. No, she dressed too preppy to be mistaken for that stripe.
Perhaps Sharon should’ve cajoled Pete into escorting her if he wasn’t too busy flirting with co-eds or off barhopping through Georgetown. Instead, she redoubled her gait and jaywalked between two SUVs to traverse the wet street. The balmy cheer attendant on campus waned as the city’s clingy murk shrouded her. Underneath a streetlight she entered its illumed hemisphere to see her breaths rising in brassy halos. The hooded windbreaker she’d slipped on charging out the door felt flimsy. She jumped at a noise. A small cat or large rat thrashed into the alleyway with a flick of its sleazy tail.
Sharon’s footfall grated off the brick wall under which she pulled up to huddle. A snarled nexus of muscles between her shoulders was a barometer registering her fear. A made-up headline jingled through her head topping tomorrow’s crime column in The Washington Post: “Coed Intern Out Sleuthing Is Given Forty Whacks.” Not so awfully far away, a cop siren screamed after bad guys. This street drama of opposing forces, good versus mean, never let up, did it?
While a murder heinous as Vi Stallard’s creeped out Sharon, she was more intrigued by how evildoers were pursued and nabbed. Perhaps the thrill of the hunt is what impelled her to take risks such as now. She sallied forth again and upon intersecting Q Street a new gleeful giddiness seized her but not to the extreme she didn’t feel in control.
In the six hundred block of Q Street, she ran into two-story brick rowhouses with white marble front stoops in a tidy middle-class neighborhood. Feathery violet fog rose off the peat moss just put down by gardeners. At the corner unit, a chaotic pyramid of household furniture on the sidewalk marked a recent eviction. She was relieved to learn it wasn’t Stewart Weems at Number 606 a mere couple doors down.
Mission-style ground lights bordered the red slate path through shrubbery Mr. Weems preferred to keep shaggy and unkempt. Sharon’s shortened steps allotted her a chance to spec out his small yard formidable in its shadowy patchwork. Queer. She again sniffed. Vegetation exuded the coppery smell of blood as she mounted the pale stone porch. The day’s heat radiating off the brick touched the nape of her neck as she imagined a killer’s cloying fingers did. She shivered. Next the brick’s decay was profane in its sour odor. Her forefinger jabbed the glittery door chimes button.
To her shock, tinny beeps didn’t rouse any keg-chested woof from Mr. Weems’ mastiff alert to make unsuspecting trespassers pay for their ignorance. Quite the contrary, in fact. The hush grew deafening until her second longer buzz rousted the soft shuffle made by an elderly man’s slippers. Sharon counted not one or two, but three deadbolts clack free. The door chinked and in the slice of amber light, she fixated on the man’s obscene scarlet lips whittling into derision.
“Yes, young ma’am? How I may help you?” he asked in a reedy voice.
“My name is Sharon Knowles. Mr. Stewart Weems, I presume?”
“I am at that,” he said, “but don’t hold it against me, please.”
Nonplused as how to handle such self-deprecating sarcasm, Sharon didn’t smile, only pressed her mission. “I’m working with the DC police on cold case murders, in particular the Vi Stallard homicide. You ran across the dead body and notified police, correct?”
“At last you’ve arrived,” he said. “Oh, I’ve been expecting you. Yes-yes. Scurry inside. Come along, come.”
“We can talk here at the threshold,” said Sharon.
Red lips curled to bare fangs. On second glance, Sharon took it for his smile. “And let my busybody neighbors get an earful? I have to live here. Hasten indoors. Please. We can chit-chat here in the foyer with the deadbolts off.” The door widened to let out more light.
“Only if you leave the door parted,” Sharon insisted.
“As you wish it.”
Sharon’s primal urge said turn tail and go like a goosed giraffe. A reckless confidence in her abilities, however, asserted itself and steeled her nerves to take calm action. She invaded the foyer but kept a pale-knuckled clinch on the door’s edge.
In this flush light, Mr. Weems shrank to an ordinary meek man and Sharon knew she could fend off his assault. “Come into my den,” he said. “We’ll find it more comfortable and cheerier. Oh, keep the door cracked if you must. I’m sure a seventy-two year old curmudgeon poses little if any threat to you.” He trotted ahead to usher her over palm wood floors into a disheveled chamber ruled by a mammoth orange couch. Sharon mashed its plush cushions to sit while Mr. Weems occupied his favorite armchair.
“Care to elaborate on the Stallard murder?” she asked.
“First off the bat, I know her killer was never apprehended,” he began while sliding out a folder from under a phone book on the end table. He wetted his thumb and rustled through loose papers. “Moreover, I know my statement released by police is a pack of lies.”
“Beg your pardon,” said Sharon, “but I don’t follow.”
Mr. Weems rattled the page in his liver-spotted fist. “This part about me in Rock Creek with a dog is pure shinola. Look around you, young lady. Do you spot a dog? No, for Pete’s
sake. I’ve no mutt. I’m direly allergic to all breeds, in fact. Asthma.”
Sharon scowled. “Detective Stoppard jotted it down in error?”
“No. Stoddard flat-out lied. What he did tell me is the cops could come back later to expose it as my lie to begin and poke holes in my story.”
“You’d better ask Stoppard,” said Mr. Weems. “I would but can’t. You see, all this time I didn’t make waves because I didn’t want her murder rap put on me.”
“Good Lord,” said Sharon.
Mr. Weems went on. “Oh, I’ll say to my last drawn breath that Detective Stoppard killed Vi Stallard. You better believe it wasn’t me. I’ve no dog to hunt turtles.”